While presbyteries across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently vote on whether to approve the addition of the Belhar Confession to The Book of Confessions, another confessional document already in the book has been studied in meticulous detail.

The General Assembly Special Committee on the Heidelberg Catechism concluded its meeting Wednesday after deciding unanimously to recommend that the PC(USA) replace the current translation of the nearly 450-year-old catechism with a new common translation.

The common translation would be used by the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA). The general synods of the CRCNA and the RCA will take action on the new translation this summer. The PC(USA) committee’s final report and recommendation will go to the 220th General Assembly when it meets in 2012.

“This is a significant and momentous occasion for these three Reformed churches in North America to come together over a confessional document that has been, arguably, the most used and translated document in the Reformed tradition,” said the Reverend Neal D. Presa (Elizabeth Presbytery), who chairs the committee.

What will be distinctive to the catechism as it appears in The Book of Confessions is the addition of scriptural references to each of the 129 questions. To make the document more user-friendly, the references will be listed underneath each of the questions instead of being included as footnotes or endnotes.

The special committee grew out of actions of the 218th General Assembly (2008) to approve proposed changes that revolve around correcting “translation problems in five responses of the Heidelberg Catechism as found in The Book of Confessions and to add the original Scripture texts of the German Heidelberg Catechism.”

As the committee began its work in early 2009, it discovered numerous mistranslations of the five particular sections from its mandate, as well as other sections of the catechism, from the original German and Latin texts. It also learned about the possibility of a joint translation with the CRCNA and the RCA.

Given the discoveries, the special committee made two recommendations to the 219th General Assembly: “Reappoint the presently constituted Special Committee on the Heidelberg Catechism to recommend to the 220th General Assembly (2012) a new translation of the present Heidelberg Catechism in The Book of Confessions in cooperation with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Reformed Church of America (RCA); and instruct the Special Committee on the Heidelberg Catechism to consider inclusion of appropriate Scriptural citations and/or textual references that correspond to each article of the catechism.”

The assembly approved both recommendations by voice vote.

According to Presa, the committee worked with the original 1563 German (3rd edition) and Latin editions of the catechism. They compared the two versions and noted where the Latin corrected or agreed with the German, where only the Latin edition used a reference, or where only the German used a reference. They used the Latin version as the base text for the scriptural references.

Presa said, “We chose to listen to the 16th-century writers of the catechism, letting history rather than theological arguments shape our approach.”

He added, “Even so, we had robust theological discussions. We are a very diverse committee that is a true cross-section of the denomination in terms of geography and theology. To come to a unanimous decision to recommend the common translation with these scriptural references says much about how thoroughly, carefully, and prayerfully we have done our work.”

Their work is not quite done. The full committee will meet this fall to approve its final report to the 220th General Assembly. Between now and then, a sub-group will draft the final report, incorporating the edits made at this meeting.

The final report, which will include the proposed common translation with scriptural references, is expected to be available in December.

Presa said, “This common translation is great news and a gift to the PC(USA) and the entire Reformed global family, as the catechism itself is a gift from God to all of us.”

The Book of Order (G-18.0200) calls for a special committee of no less than fifteen individuals to be formed when a General Assembly proposes any changes to part of the PC(USA) Constitution. In addition to Presa, the members of the special committee, appointed by the Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008), are the Reverends Heidi Husted Armstrong (Olympia Presbytery), Warner M. Bailey (Grace Presbytery), Shelly Barrick Parsons (West Virginia Presbytery), James R. Edwards (Inland Northwest Presbytery), Christopher Elwood (Mid-Kentucky Presbytery), Gary Neal Hansen (John Knox Presbytery), Lorna A. Shoemaker (Redwoods Presbytery), David L. Stubbs (Lake Michigan Presbytery), and Floretta L. Watkins (Charlotte Presbytery), and elders Dawn DeVries (James Presbytery), Sylvia Dooling (Plains and Peaks Presbytery), Susan N. Haskell (Sheppards and Lapsley Presbytery), Patrick Hunt (San Francisco Presbytery), and David Mulford (South Louisiana Presbytery).